In much anticipated decisions, the Minnesota Supreme Court recently addressed the idiopathic injury defense in Hohlt v. University of Minnesota and Kubis v. Community Memorial Hospital Association. The Hohlt decision came out in favor of the employee while the Kubis decision was a defense victory. The idiopathic injury defense – injuries that are unique to the employee and not something that arises out of employment – was expanded by the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Dykhoff v. Xcel Energy, and both sides of the bar were hoping that these decisions would provide some clarity to this defense.
Slippery Sidewalk at The University of Minnesota
The Hohlt case involved an employee who was employed as a painter by the University of Minnesota. She injured her hip after she slipped on ice on the way to her car after her shift had ended. While the parking ramp was owned by the U of M, the employee was neither required nor encouraged to park at that particular ramp, which was several blocks away from her work site. The Supreme Court concluded that the employee’s job exposed her to a hazard of the employee’s work environment. It was noted that the sidewalk where the employee slipped was maintained by the U of M. Therefore, there was an increased risk of her employment in that the employee fell after a reasonable period of time after her work shift ended. The walk to her car was incidental to her employment, and she was traveling from her work building on a sidewalk maintained by the U of M to a parking ramp owned by the U of M. It did not matter that the general public was also exposed to the risk. The question, according to the Supreme Court, was whether the employee was exposed to the risk because of her employment. In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Anderson felt that this was a classic “coming and going” injury, which is not compensable. He was concerned that this case essentially held employer/insurer’s liable for “garden variety slip and falls” that could occur anywhere between the work place and the parking lot, no matter the distance.
Health Care Worker Rushing up the Stairs
In Kubis an employee was injured when she was, in her words, rushing up a staircase at the hospital where she was employed. There was no evidence or claim that the staircase was defective, and so for the injury to be compensable, the employee needed to show that there was something about her work that made her rush up the steps, or “increased her risk.” She claimed that she needed to get upstairs quickly to report to the incoming shift because she was trying to avoid overtime. She alleged that the employees were pressured to avoid overtime, something the employer disputed. The compensation judge determined that the employee’s testimony about being pressured to avoid overtime was not credible. The Minnesota Court of Appeals (WCCA) reversed the compensation judge’s credibility finding and determined that the injury was compensable. However, the Supreme Court reversed the WCCA, reminding them that a compensation judge’s credibility determination generally is not to be disturbed. As a result, since the employee was not rushing up the stairs, her employment situation did not create an increased risk and her claim was deemed non-compensable.
What this Means for Insurance Companies
Of the two cases, the Hohlt case appears to be the more significant, as in the words of Justice Anderson in his dissent, it created an “unprecedented expansion of workers’ compensation liability,” by seemingly extending the work environment. The case poses a somewhat unique situation as the U of M is set on several blocks of land, but it does seem to open the door for injuries to be compensable for slips and falls that occur further away from the employer premises, where the employer has less control. The Dykhoff case held that injuries are compensable where the work environment created an “increased risk” to the employee by exposing an employee to a hazard that is different and greater than the general public. In Hohlt it would appear, as the defense argued, that the employee’s risk was the same as that of the general public. The Supreme Court, however, disagreed.
Kubis, on the other hand, affirms what is generally understood, that a compensation judge’s findings on credibility will usually not be disturbed unless the compensation judge’s findings are not supported by the substantial evidence. Otherwise, where an employee falls on a flat surface, or a stairway that is absent of defects, something more than a mere fall will have to be shown, and that is generally where we see the “hurrying” allegation. In his dissent, Justice Lillehaug suggested that the time might be right for consideration as to whether Minnesota should adopt a positional-risk test in deciding whether injuries arise out of and in the course of employment. Under the positional-risk test, which other states have adopted, an employee’s injury is compensable if the injury would not have occurred but for the fact that the conditions and obligations of the employer placed the employee in the position where the injury occurred.
These cases remind us of the importance of fact gathering, both at the initial investigation stage, and during the employee’s deposition. The idiopathic injury defense is fact specific and the case can turn on one piece of evidence.
Joseph G. Twomey has been a member of Hansen Dordell since 1998. In that time he has handled hundreds of cases to successful resolution. Joe has experience trying cases to juries, judges, and arbitrators and relishes the competition of the courtroom. He is passionate about obtaining the best possible result for his clients, whether it is through a pretrial settlement or by way of a trial or arbitration. Working together with clients to achieve the desired resolution is Joe’s favorite part of the practice of law.